Aid, Politics and Development

When I first read Paul Collier‘s ‘The Bottom Billion: Why Poor countries are failing and what can be done about it“, I could not stop myself from clenching and unclenching my fists several times because of the vividness with which he captured certain situations I had witnessed and experienced. I could not wait to reach the portion of the book in which he discussed the second half of his subtitle “…What Can Be Done About it”  Collier does a good in presenting some very simple and arguably inexpensive solutions:

  • Aid agencies should increasingly be concentrated in the most difficult environments and accept more risk.
  • Appropriate Military Interventions  should be encouraged, especially to guarantee democratic governments against coups.
  • International Charters are needed to encourage good governance and provide prototypes.
  • Trade Policy needs to encourage free trade and give preferential access to Bottom Billion exports

I applauded to this and really found it difficult to think that there was a solution that could stray far from what he was proposing. My conviction was strengthened when I read  “Is Aid Oil? An analysis of whether Africa can absorb more aid.” (Do not mind the fact that I was anachronistic in my reading, I just happened to have seen the Bottom Billion first)The conclusion he arrives at is that

“Even though aid is not like oil, the scope for substantial expansion may nevertheless be limited by diminishing returns. The available evidence suggests that if aid is simply scaled-up proportionately, the incremental aid might indeed be much less effective, dollar-for-dollar, than existing aid.”

Fair enough, the argument in the Bottom Billion had support from an earlier document though it presented  Aid as  ‘Part of the Solution’  I thought I had found my ‘Holy Grail’. Could my quest for a solution to the African/Third world problems be over so soon? So I may have thought, until I had time to go through Heather‘s lectures and later participated in the seminar discussions. One of my Masters (the most sceptical of them all) had made it clear to me that

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Don’t get me wrong! Collier’s work is not a volume on divinity or school metaphysics (it is a very practical Economics textbook ‘that can be read even on the beach’ and one that I will love to read over and over) unfortunately it contains a lot sophistry and illusion. I am however not advocating like Hume that it be burnt because in that case, most of the volumes in the Social Sciences in recent years will be cast in to flames. (even Hume’s work will not have lived to tell its story) What I am simply trying to point out is that I accepted rationale of the book without subjecting it to critical judgement.

This week’s session did a lot to wake me up from my ‘dogmatic slumber’. I wonder why I kept looking at things in isolation. Aid in isolation is wonderful; Politics – especially international politics – in isolation is a den of wolves where only the fittest survive – Development in isolation… can development be isolated? I don’t know! It seems to be a thing of the future. But when we put the three together and what do we get? Aid that has to pass through some political machinations to bring about development. I was therefore both thrilled and amazed when I looked at the propositions that Heather wanted to be discussed during the seminar session:

1. Aid has a negative impact on politics in developing countries.

2. Aid has a positive impact on politics in developing countries.

3. Aid has no impact on politics in developing countries.

I was thrilled because I noticed that the propositions stood a chance of getting wide support and this meant a good avenue for exciting debate. I was however amazed because Hearther added that “You *must* come to a consensus on this, and so this will involve some friendly debating. You will also be expected to back up your position with examples.” Wow!!! A consensus on such extreme propositions… that was where the difficulty was surely to come… and it did come.

First of all, there was need to distinguish between Official and Non Official Sources of Aid, there was further need to distinguish between Grants and loans, Humanitarian and food Aid, Tied and Untied Aid, Project and Programme Aid, Basket Funds, Budget support, just to name a few. In attempting to do so it became clear that one could not dispute the fact that different types of Aid had different effects and varies from place to place.

The only area we could arrive at a consensus – or let me say where I could agree with the group – was the fact that Humanitarian Aid and other Relief Aid Agencies like the Red Cross, Islamic Relief and Christian Aid were doing a wonderful job and had a positive impact on the politics of developing countries albeit usually unintentionally, and should get all the support they need to continue. Unfortunately we could not have a synoptic view of other forms of official aid. The main reason I differed with others or anyone who thinks aid has any positive impact on the politics of developing nations is the fact that there is nothing positive to show for it. Let us leave all rhetorics aside and look directly at all the countries that have been receiving aid since their creation… there is none that I know that has really achieved better political structures because of aid… if anything I know of so many who have become more corrupt because of the availability of disposable income made possible by aid.

But Why Aid?
Why should rich countries be so concerned about giving aid to poor countries. Why not “teach the people how to fish rather than giving them fish”, why is it that China is one of the highest recipients of aid is also offering aid to Cameroon, or why should one bother to give aid to a country like Cameroon whose president can afford a holiday in which he spends over £25,000 a day for three weeks (or whose national football team can afford to stay in the 2nd most expensive hotel during the South African World cup tournament – beaten in class and only by Japan). What is the rationale behind giving aid to countries even when it is common knowledge that the money will find its way to a Swiss bank with the first available transaction? What in God’s name is the reason that aid is given with conditionalities that will have rippling effects for future generations who will not even be able to account for the aid? If Brundtland’s definition that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” is anything to go by, then I will be bold to say here that aid is not sustainable, especially aid that has anything to do with the politics of third world nations.

But… is there any room for optimism… yes I think so but from two different unrelated perspectives: first is the fact that most of the taxpayers in the rich nations are beginning to question the usefulness of aid. For example some British people have recently been questioning the rationale behind aid when is was not bringing any positive reports. The report I read from a daily said that Britain will stop giving aid to China and Russia and will freeze its level of aid to India at 280 million a year for four years. The article called for a stop to all foreign aid since “… aid has been propping up dictators for years, with the cash ending up in Swish bank accounts, not in the stomach of those who need it most… it is time we stop sending bribes to these rich despots…”

The second reason for my optimism is fueled by Collier in a talk in which he states that Aid can only be a solution to the poverty of poor nations if it follows a recipe which is a combination of two forces that changed the world for good, – the alliance of compassion and enlightened self-interest. Compassion is necessary because a billion people are living in societies that have not offered credible hope and Enlightened self-interest, because the continuation of such economic divergence for another 40 years combined with social integration globally,  will be a nightmare for the children of the rich nations. Hence he feels that “We need compassion to get ourselves started, and enlightened self-interest to get ourselves serious. That’s the alliance that changes the world.”

Before I begin to get upbeat, it will be good for me to pause a little and wait for next week’s lecture in which a case study of Zimbabwe will put most of these arguments into perspective.

Elites, Politics and Development

Last week, the contention was on whether politics can be pro-poor. While I am yet to come to a conclusion about that, the issue has shown itself to be a real can of worms. The bringing in of elites into the discussion ultimately raises the questions – what have elites got to do with development? And to answer this question another needs to be answered first… who are the elites? These are surely very complex questions and made more so by the fact that I had been following a debate on the Economist with the motion This House Believes That the Global Elite Serve the Masses. I could not help but marvel at the coincidence that the Economist should choose such a topic on the same week that I am grappling with understanding the role of elites in development. It however, became less of a surprise when I followed the massive arguments on both sides, which in one way or the other, pointed to the fact that elites are a massive influence on how the future of the world is to be shaped.

The proposer of the debate felt that the “modern subsidised elite… provide goods and services that the masses value. And, for all we know, the consumer surplus may exceed the subsidy. What is more, the élite pay high taxes that subsidise the consumption of the masses. In America, the bottom 50% of earners pays no federal income tax at all, while the top 10% pay 50% of the national total. In Britain, most people consume more than they earn.” Wow! I literally clapped for him… but not until I read the opposition’s remarks that “Instead… look more closely at the record of the elite in recent years… the question should not be whether such ideas are beneficial but whether the elite could have done better. In many respects their record in recent years, particularly in the West, is poor. Economic growth could arguably have been faster and technological progress more pervasive. The average growth rate in the Western economies is much slower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Caught within the ‘fly bottle” of this debate, it was not surprising that I had some difficulties at the beginning of Tom’s lecture. From his definition of elites, my mind immediately became flooded with questions… is the concept of ‘elite’ the same in the Western world as it is in Africa? Do they have similar roles to perform? Are the expectations from the masses the same? Is there any such thing as ‘global elite’?

Then I got it! There lies the main area of my confusion… the use of the word ‘global’ in the debate motion and the fact that the Moderator, Proposer and Opposition all failed to capture what they meant by ‘global’. Their arguments failed to reflect the universal nature of the proposition. Maybe by luck or by design, this realisation made it relatively simpler for me to follow the discussions during the seminar. I had arrived at certain conclusions though:

First, there is a marked difference between the African elite and that of the West. This is not only from the perspective that the African elite “…tend to be especially powerful. (And) often command a particularly large slice of the national income, and the influence that goes with it.” (Hossain and Moore, 2002) But most especially that their histories are very different. While it would seem the problem of elite’s participation in the political and/or economic development of the western countries could be seen as an issue that is beginning to decline, the situation of the African elite is different in that their roles were defined by the very process of their creation – to be one that exploits rather than help the masses. Fanon clearly stated that the mission of these national bourgeoisie “has nothing to do with transforming the nation” as it is content with playing “the role of the western bourgeoisie’s business agent” and serving as the local instrument of neo-colonialism. Nkrumah, one of those who was quick to spot this a long time ago pointed out that the African elites (bourgeoisies) were a far more serious problem  than colonialism for while colonialism had been slavery from without, neo-colonialism was slavery from within, and as such more dangerous. (Nkrumah, 1965, 50) Jean-Paul Sartre, who calls them the “manufactured native elite”, cogently explains that

The European elite undertook to manufacture native elite. They picked out promising adolescents, branded them as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture; they stuffed their mouth full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. (Sartre; Preface  to Fanon; p. ix)

These native elites did not limit themselves to high-sounding phrases but in many other ways mortgaged the economies of their countries in a bid to maintain their privileges. This is because the African elites or bourgeoisie:

…lacks something essential to a bourgeoisie: Money. The bourgeoisie of an underdeveloped country is a bourgeoisie in spirit only….consequently, it remains at the beginning and for a long time afterwards a bourgeoisie of the civil service… will always reveal itself incapable of giving birth to an authentic bourgeoisie society with all the economic and industrial consequences which this entails.

Until there is a good and accountable partnership between the government and the people with whom sovereignty resides and through some process of direct dialogue and initiative, a few individuals will continue to present their ideologies and selfish interests as national creed, thereby eroding the powers of the people[i]

[i] Francis O.C Njoku; Development and African Philosophy, p.182

Pro-Poor Politics

Unfortunately, my confusion grows… so there is actually such a thing as pro-poor politics! The fact that I am confused should not in the least be surprising when one considers that I derive my foundation from the Athenian intellectual tradition where the primary focus of thought was the State, rather than the individual, and the all thinking on politics or economics stressed the political solidar­ity of society.  In the Republic for example Plato writes that  “A State, . . . arises… out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. . . . Then, as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another; and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habita­tion the body of inhabitants is termed a State. . . . And they exchange with one another, and one gives, and another receives, under the idea that the exchange will be for their good.” The origin of the state therefore, is as a result of the absence of individual self-sufficiency in the satisfaction of wants.

Coming after Plato, Aristotle took another perspective to make the same point, indicating the importance of interdependence of everyone in the city state. Aristotle in Politics Book 1 pt. 2 points out that “… the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand. . . . The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.”
If one were to go by these arguments, it becomes difficult not to conclude that society should be structured in such a way that every action benefits everyone. This could be done by applying laws that are progressive and that once implemented at the State level inevitably trickles down to every person. Unfortunately, the reality is not the case today in most developing countries where the elites consider themselves to be ‘above’ the State and actions that should have been carried out for the benefit of the state as a whole and where not carried out ( or carried out in such a way that leads to the fulfillment of the selfish interests of the Elites, at the detriment of the poor) are today being carried out with the tag  – Pro-Poor. Is it actually for the poor or is it done to prevent the poor being a problem to the welfare of the elites?

Before the lectures and discussions this week, I had this question going through my mind. Is pro-poor politics an end itself – the welfare of the poor – or is it a means to an end – getting the poor in a better situation that will reduce the possibility of them being a problem to the rich? I was more convinced there was need to look beyond the idea to the reality because Locke’s words kept re-echoing in my mind

The gap between our ideas and words about the world, and the world itself, is large and difficult, but still, if one man calls something good, while another man calls it evil, the deed or man referred to still has real qualities of good or evil, the categories exist in the world regardless of our names for them, and if one man’s word does not correspond to another mans word, this a problem of communication, not fundamental arbitrariness in reality.

Hence the bottom-line should be “good politics” – to call it ‘pro-poor’ or any other name does not change the effects of the action carried out. There is no gainsaying the fact that a hospital or good sanitation facilities provided in a poor neighbourhood benefits the poor but what is not noticed or spoken is that it also frees the rich from drudgery of having to think of a cholera outbreak that will not discriminate between poor and rich.

When I was reading through Moore and Putzel’s (2001) paper, I was fascinated by the ease with which they presented the arguments relating to pro-poor policy making. I could not help questioning some of their conclusions/assumptions:

First they feel that democracy has differential outcomes for the poor. The first problem I found with this assumption was the lack of delineation of what they meant by ‘poverty’. Are they discussing absolute poverty or relative poverty? These distinctions will go a long way to change some of the broad conclusions they arrived at. Secondly, the term democracy is used there loosely to simply mean ‘providing people with a framework to vote for their leaders’ – but is that really what democracy is all about? While I will like to agree with them (especially going by the illustration given of Kamataka and Andhra Pradesh) that the nature of politics has different effects on the poor, I however could not fail to notice that they only succeeded in pointing to what was obvious and illustrating these with examples. The question should  not be what name a particular system of politics or governance is called but how much it impacts on the life of the people as a whole. Hence I totally agree with them that making accomplishments in poverty reduction a criterion for legitimacy of governments will be a wonderful idea. Unfortunately the problem arises about how to measure these accomplishments. Who will be the arbiter and who are those involved in the presentation of evidence? Will it be the poor themselves?

According to Chipi (2010)

“…the adoption of democratic institutions does not alone suggest a change in elite behaviour or in the actions they take. The persistence of poverty reflects its institutionalization within social and political norms as well as institutions and its acceptance within political discourse. Hence, noble agendas – such as empowerment of the poor, or increased political space for the poor to participate in – offer very little promise if the elites who are required to adopt and implement these institutions are anyhow ignored.”

While I agree entirely with the first part of her argument, I question very much the logic of the concluding part because experience has shown that there may well be some situations where the elites are not required to ‘adopt’ and ‘implement’ institutions. In most cases, they tend to be inimical to the whole process of empowerment of the poor. The reason I think is that, having being established as a ruling class, most of the elites in poor countries generally enrich themselves at the public’s expense through public graft and corruption as well as deals with foreign capitalists. For example Fanon presents this situation prosaically that;

By dint of yearly loans, concessions are snatched up by foreigners: scandals are numerous, ministers grow rich, their wives doll themselves up, the members of parliament feather their nest and there is not a soul down to the simple policeman or the custom officer who does not join in the great procession of corruption.”(1963:165-66)

In Nigeria, for example, Njoko points out that “The present political economy has largely succeeded in erecting greedy an affluent politicians and a listless, scarred public. In fact, the myth that is a way of African life has to be abandoned. Our experience so far is that the government, the politician, is the greatest armed robber, victimiser or oppressor in Nigeria.”  (2004:91) The issue  remains unclear whether there is such a thing as pro-poor or whether policies aimed at the poor are simply part of a political agenda.

Later following Chipi’s presentation, the picture became a bit clear. When she narrated the story of a ‘poor’ woman who called a parliamentarian and asked her to pay her child’s school fees, I said to myself that this should be a really good situation where the poor can talk directly to the Elites and ask them for favours. One thing however that I am yet to clearly understand is if whether everyone has access to the private numbers of parliamentarians in Malawi. Since this will obviously not be the case, I will certainly not be wrong to conclude that one has to belong to a certain class to have access to such privy information. Another thing that I succeeded in getting both from her (2010) paper and her presentation is that the general consensus seems that pro-poor policies are for the poor a privilege, rather a right to  mutually beneficial governance.

I don’t know if you notice what I have just noticed myself… my confusion seems to be waning a bit! What I cannot fail to realise also however, is the fact that I keep having this agitation in my heart as I discuss this issue of poverty. The reason is simple… it’s a road I have walked and I am not discussing it as a merely academic exercise but it is almost like an evaluation of the paths I have trod. No wonder I look forward so much to the discussion next week of Elites, Politics and Development…

Chipiliro K.N  2010. Mutual Interdependence between Elites and the Poor Working Paper No. 2010/117 World Institute for Development Economic Research

Fanon, F. 1963. The wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press,

Njoku, O.C 2004. Development and African Philosophy: A Theoretical Reconstruction of African Socio-Political Economy, New York: iUniverse, Inc.

The ‘Primacy’ of Politics in Development


I was very fascinated by a debate staged by the Economist this past week with the motion “This house believes that Egypt will become a democracy within a year“. Following the arguments on both sides, the one thing which is easily noticeable from the opening remarks of the proposer and opposition is the fact that they had two different conceptions of ‘democracy’. The question came up several times from the floor indicating that there was a question of ambiguity with the term. To be sure, unless that was resolved it was obvious that each person will make her/his arguments based on their understanding of the term and will therefore be convinced they are right and the other wrong which will inevitably end in relativism. To avoid falling therefore into this same situation, I thing it is necessary for me ab initio to understand what politics is:

Etymologically, the word ‘political’ derives from the Greek politikos, ‘of, or pertaining to, the polis’. (The Greek term polis can be translated to mean ‘city-state’, ‘city’ or ‘polis’, or simply anglicized as ‘polis’. City-states like Athens and Sparta were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns were intertwined.) Aristotle’s word for ‘politics’ is politikê, which is short for politikê epistêmê or ‘political science’. He thus considered politics to be a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry. For Aristotle a lawgiver, or the politician more generally is like a craftsman (dêmiourgos), a weaver or shipbuilder, who fashions material into a finished product (Politics:II.12.1273b32–3, VII.4.1325b40–1365a5).The notion of final cause dominates Aristotle’s Politics which also highlights the ethical dimension of politics that was dominant in Plato’s political thought.

Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community and that every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good), it is clear that every community aims at some good, and the community which has the most authority of all and includes all the others aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority. This is what is called the city-state or political community. [I.1.1252a1–7]

Taking this logic some centuries further, we find Hobbes whose main concern was the problem of social and political order: how human beings can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. In the Leviathan he makes his arguments along lines that make the distinction between human psychology, physics and politics difficult to establish. The opening chapters of Leviathan begin by establishing that the human body is like a machine, and that political organisation (“the commonwealth”) is like an artificial human being. He ends by saying that the truth of his ideas can be gauged only by self-examination, by looking into our selves to adjudge our characteristic thoughts and passions, which form the basis of all human action.

Carrying these ideas in my mind while getting into the lecture hall meant that confusion was inevitable when I realised that people where discussing ‘politics’ as a term far-removed from other aspects of human life. Hence, I could not help asking the naive question “What Is Politics?” I must admit that a deeper reflection on Leftwich’s definition did much in assuaging my confusion. When he defines politics as ‘all the activities of conflict, cooperation and negotiation involved in the use, production and distribution of resources, whether material or ideal, whether at local, national or international levels, or whether in the private or public domains’ (1983) and  goes on to state that the ‘…processes of development in human societies always involve the organisation, mobilisation, combination, use and distribution of resources in new ways, whether these resources take the form of capital, land, human beings or their combination’ (2000) I see a scholar who clearly recognises the fact that it is an uphill task to talk of politics, economics and development in different languages. His emphasis on the point that both politics and development revolve around the production, combination use and distribution of resources, which clearly are also central to economics, leaves little room for surprise when he states that  ‘…the central and dominant variable determining not only the conception and shape of development, but developmental success or failure in all human societies, is their politics’.

This last statement will raise a lot of dust in circles where there are attempts to create a divide between politics, economics and even development. Following my submission last week and the understanding of politics according to the Ancients, (especially Aristotle who considered politics to be a normative and prescriptive art)I am apt to give a thumbs-up to Leftwich for easing my confusion. Going by DFID’s position that ‘politics determines how resources are used and policies are made. And politics determines who benefits. In short, good governance is about good politics (2006), the whole picture of what Leftwich means by the ‘primacy of politics’ becomes clearer. Confusion can arise however when the word ‘primacy’ is taken to be an unequivocal term. Following his arguments to their logical conclusion show he did not take it that way.  The fact that Leftwich takes his argument to the point of ‘leaving out politics’ and later ‘bringing it back’, simply confirm that his hypothesis was tested against all comers and that he acknowledged the fact that there were other weaker actors in the process of development. Politics is not the only factor in development but simply the pre-eminent factor.

If one has lived and studied in ‘Africa In Miniature’ and ‘The Giant Of Africa’ where governance is ‘upside down’ and is manifested in all facets of societal life, then the person will have little or no room to doubt that if development studies is to make any meaningful impact other that the writing and publishing of wonderful volumes on the subject, then it must of necessity give primacy to both national and international politics… and some will add that it should be ‘pro poor’. But the many layered question remains... is there any such thing as pro poor politics? I am sure to find out this week